Lightyear is a unique idea for a spin-off of Toy Story as it isn’t a prequel or a sequel. Instead, this sci-fi movie about Buzz Lightyear is the basis for Buzz the toy. While only tangentially related to Toy Story there’s still a few of the iconic Buzz Lightyear lines in Lightyear. This movie is basically a framework for a huge and zippy sci-fi movie. It may be guilty of smashing together about five different sci-fi movies in a blender like Star Wars, time travel, Aliens, a bit of Lego Movie 2, some survivalist antics in an alien world and ace test pilot drama. But it comes out in an interesting way and is definitely not just another Toy Story sequel.
Buzz Lightyear (Chris Evans) is a Space Ranger and his team has been stranded on a far away hostile alien planet because he screwed up his exit, causing the colony ship to crash. With the help of his friend Alisha (Uzo Aduba) Buzz works on a ship that can reach the speed of light to get them home. However, because of time distillation, during a four minute lightspeed flight time slows down for him and four years pass on the planet. So, every time he goes faster in the light drive, he jumps further into the future. Eventually decades pass and so does Alisha, leaving behind her granddaughter Izzy (Keke Palmer) and a colony that has no desire to leave. When Buzz returns an alien invasion force known only as Zurg is trying to take over. So, Buzz, his super smart robotic cat Sox (Peter Sohn) and the misfit washouts Izzy, the frightful Mo (Taika Waititi) and the criminal convict Darby (Dale Soules) battle Zurg. But the revelation of who Zurg is will challenge Buzz’s entire existence.
The movie is a grab-bag of various influences making Lightyear an ode to the science fiction genre. Stranded on an alien planet with dangerous vegetation is a sci-fi trope seen before. One fantastic scene has Izzy in the vacuum of space having to jump a large distance and it feels like a lot of tense space-jumps from various sci-fi movies. The effects of time distillation is like something out of Interstellar. There’s a sense of palatable loss as every time he comes back to the planet everyone has gotten older. Alisha has a wife and started a family and Buzz only sees bits and pieces of it as he keeps going on test flights as her life moves forward. There’s sadness to him sacrificing his future which makes it frustrating when the mission is scrapped.
Evans’ Buzz isn’t the comedic dope Tim Allen’s Buzz Lightyear was and Evans doesn’t try to match Allen’s comedic delivery. It makes sense that this Buzz doesn’t sound like Tim Allen because the talking toys are generally voiced by different actors. Buzz in Toy Story is the child-friendly spin-off version and Evans’ Lightyear is the sci-fi action hero. What’s fun is seeing lines repeating, like when Buzz first lands on the planet his analysis is exactly like when Buzz landed in Andy’s room in Toy Story. One of the most iconic jokes from Toy Story 2 is when Emperor Zurg says like Darth Vader “I am your father”. There’s a great callback when Buzz sees Zurg take off his helmet and immediately asks, “Dad?” The answer as to who Zurg is a bit of a well-worn sci-fi cliché, but the movie makes it feel original.
The pace is amusingly frantic but also supplies quieter character stuff. There’s a funny moment as the crew has a snack and the sandwiches are inside out and Buzz has no idea what’s going on. When they ask him if he’s ever had a sandwich before he says “Yeah, like a 100 years ago!” It’s silly but a sign of how existence moved on without him. The various misfits are nicely eclectic. Waititi’s Mo is the dopey guy who eventually shines in crisis and Waititi adds funny flair. Buzz basically missed his friend Alisha’s whole life which makes him protective of Izzy and Palmer’s performance is sweetly earnest. The crazy paroled criminal Darby is awesome for a few weird one-liners, as they immediately freak out when sirens are closing in assuming it's the police. There’s a fun, very visually interesting bit when the crew is caught in laser nets that merge if they bump into each other, so they work together to escape. The power of teamwork has been seen in Pixar movies before but still works effectively. Probably the best member of the ensemble is Buzz’s robotic cat Sox and Sohn has a hilariously stilted line delivery with Sox having the best lines. He can’t ever shut up about impending doom countdowns but is very reliable in a crunch, having a Swiss Army Knife style computer port that pops out of his tail. The weird but dependable robot buddy is a staple of the sci-fi genre but it’s very entertaining.
As a standalone sci-fi movie, Lightyear may not be the most original sci-fi film but it wears its affection for the genre on its sleeve. In a weird way it adds character to the Toy Story Buzz to see where all his quirks came from. The best part is watching this sci-fi mashup take flight into strange new worlds and beyond.
Director: Angus MacLane
Starring: Chris Evans, Keke Palmer, Peter Sohn, Taika Waititi, Dale Soules, James Brolin, Uzo Aduba, Mary McDonald-Lewis, Isiah Whitlock Jr. And Efren Ramirez